The two most important bits of wisdom about writing that I’ve ever taken to heart were from my screenwriting teachers who said: “You’re all a bunch of liars!” and “Nobody wants to read your script!” Now admittedly, when my writing teacher shouted, “You are all a bunch of liars!” to my class this wasn’t so much advice as much as it was an indictment of our outrageous reasons for our consistent tardiness and absenteeism. He was right. We were lying, our excuses were terrible, and, by default, we were terrible writers.
Rhonda has just typed “FADE OUT”. Over the moon about completing her first feature screenplay, in a few minutes she will change her Facebook status to “THE END!” Then, she will open a bottle of her favorite sparkling, and go on Skype to celebrate with her screenwriting buddies all over the web.
So far so good.
What Rhonda doesn't know, is that in exactly eighteen months and twenty-three days, she will grab her firstborn screenplay in ultimate frustration and throw it up against the wall, down the stairs, and finally, into the bin.
One of my students (her name is Hannah Feller) recently had her superb action-adventure script The Money Flight optioned. Her success is an excellent example of what I call the Rule of 1.
The Rule of 1 is this: you get ONE shot when you're trying to get any given individual to read your script. Let's say you somehow finagle your way into Steven Spielberg's office, and he actually agrees to read your script. You get one shot with him (or anybody) ‒ and that's it! So, you better have your final draft polished before you go knocking on doors.
I came up through independent film as a writer and director, but over the last eight years, I've written somewhere around two hundred comic book scripts for big superhero stories like "Planet Hulk," historical fiction like "Magneto Testament" and "Red Skull Incarnate," supernatural action like "Dead Man's Run" for Aspen and Gale Ann Hurd's Valhalla, and creator owned sci-fi like "Vision Machine." Every day I'm working on becoming a better writer. Here are a few thoughts and principles that have worked for me along the way.
All those good dramatic writing principles apply
They call them graphic novels, and yes, the medium allows for extended prose, should you choose to use it. But I'd argue that the driving engine of comics is dramatic storytelling. So all of that great advice and training you've gotten by reading Lajos Egri's "The Art of Dramatic Writing" and Syd Field's "Four Screenplays" and Robert McKee's "Story" apply. Work those conflicts, tell your story visually, put your characters in motion, know your premise.
Connecting to the Higher Self by Carole Lee Dean
Your beliefs act like filters on a camera, changing how you see the world. And your biology adapts to those beliefs. - Bruce Lipton, The Biology of Belief
Do you see yourself as a writer, or as a high school teacher? When someone asks you what you do, how do you answer him or her? What information are you sending out into the universe? That’s important.
Over the years, I've developed a couple of rituals to get me through the blank pages of a screenplay. Like an OCD - I like to check this list off each morning to ensure my hair is sitting straight on my head:
1) Call The Fraud Police
2) Balance Research and the Interwebs
3) Apply Bum Glue
1) So yeah - the first thing I do prior to writing is to summons the Fraud Police. They're pretty easy to find - they're that voice in my head telling me I'm a big fat fraud. I acknowledge their presence like the traditional owners of the land, and thank them for coming so promptly. I also tell them that their services won't be necessary today.
I know this sounds a bit formal - but it's a necessary ritual… like sharpening a pencil use to be, or washing your hands before performing surgery.
There are several names for The Fraud Police. John Vorhaus (author of "The Comic Toolbox") was the first to point them out to me, and that's what he calls them, but I've also heard them called; The Ruthless Critic, and Logical Left Brain, or The Social Editor.
On a certain script, I got feedback that amounted to two characters not being perceived as likable or worthy people. I received various proposals on how to make these characters seem more likable or more worthy people.
While that note can be valid, often it is misleading. We don't have to like your main character and we definitely don't have to like your secondary characters. You have to make your characters people whom we find compelling. We have to root for them to succeed or fail, but rooting for them to fail is just as strong as rooting for them to succeed.
For example, we have a lot of sympathy for the Frankenstein creature, but we don't want him to survive -- he murdered a little girl! In Oliver Stone's Nixon, we don't want Tricky Dick to get away with it. But we find him a compelling, fascinating character -- a sort of monster himself.
I think it’s great that you’re going to write a screenplay, and I wish I could tell you how to write a great one. Unfortunately, I can’t. But I think I may be of some use, anyhow -- by telling you what I typically do. That way, you can do the opposite -- which, I think, will give you a decent shot at screenwriting excellence.
1. Procrastinate. I cannot emphasize this enough. Do not begin to work on your screenplay right away. If you do, and you’re at all like me, you will be so depressed at the pitiful quality of what you’ve written, compared to the Chinatown-esque level that you’d expected of yourself, that you will abandon all hope. Instead, just think about writing. Think about how great your screenplay is going to be, once you get to writing it. Visualize your Oscar acceptance speech.
Be sure the ideas in your script are "true"—but not in the obvious way. Eisner-winning graphic novelist Doug TenNapel explains how even fantastic stories should reflect human themes.
You’re beginning your graphic novel story and you realize there’s a lot of freaky stuff going on. There’s a fish-man, they travel through time, and there’s this incredible blimp made of stone that defies all explanation! What’s wrong with your story? It’s not true. Graphic novel stories can be fantastic, but they still have to be true.
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” – G.K. Chesterton
In my experience, having judged many a screenwriting competition and run my own for going on five years now, the top five things that winning scripts have in common are:
- A unique premise
- Effing Entertaining pages
As you can see, I cannot emphasize voice enough.
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